Neuralink’s Brain Chip Plans: Help the Blind See and the Paralyzed Walk


neural linkthe Elon Musk startup that hopes to link our brains directly to computers showed progress Wednesday in two medical areas: helping the blind see and helping people with spinal cord injuries walk.

The company, one of five companies Musk heads, is working on technology to drop thousands of electrodes thinner than a hair into the outer surface of the human brain. Each electrode is a small wire connected to a battery-powered, remotely charged, quarter-sized chip package embedded in a spot that once contained a skull circle. The chip, called the N1, communicates wirelessly with the outside world.

The technology is still a long way from first medical applications, let alone Musk’s ultimate vision of using Neuralink to interact with super-intelligent AIs. But it is making significant progress, including filing an application with the Food and Drug Administration to begin human trials that it hopes to begin within 6 months, the company said at a press conference. show and tell event lasts more than two hours.

“Our goal will be to turn on the light for someone who has lived in the dark for decades,” said Neuralink researcher Dan Adams, who is working on the effort to repackage camera data into a format compatible with the brain and brain. directly to the visual cortex. .

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Musk has some credibility when it comes to revolutionary technology. His Tesla electric vehicle company is revolutionizing cars and his SpaceX outfit is transforming access to space with reusable rockets. However, his reputation as a technical genius has taken a beating with the mayhem on Twitter after his Acquisition of $44 billion. Musk’s Boring Company, which also wants to innovate car transport with tunnels failed to deliver on its promises yet.

Neuralink doesn’t look simpler than social networks. Connecting computer hardware to our proprietary wetware poses enormous technical, regulatory and ethical challenges. Helping the blind see is one thing, but a digital feed straight to our brains may not help those of us who already spend too much time on our phones.

Neuralink technology to help quadriplegics walk

Neuralink previously showed how its electrodes can listen to brain activity. By capturing the brain signals of a monkey named Pager playing the classic Pong video game, Neuralink computers learned to interpret motor control signals. Later, only the signals from his brain could control the game.

Bee Neuralink’s “show and tell” eventDesigned to recruit new talent, the company showed off a new trick: a monkey named Sake who used his mind to follow directions and type on a virtual keyboard. Their implants charge wirelessly, with monkeys coaxed with a fruit smoothie to sit under a charger embedded in a branch directly above their heads.

But Thursday’s biggest advances used those same electrodes to send signals back to the neurons that make up our brain and nervous system.

One experiment used electrodes in a pig’s spinal cord to monitor various leg movements, a technology that could eventually allow people with quadriplegia to walk or use their hands. Neuralink’s approach involves not only intercepting the brain’s movement commands and sending them to the legs, but also hearing the sensory signals from those limbs and sending them back to the brain so that the brain knows what’s going on .

A diagram of a Neuralink connection between a person's brain and spinal cord

Neuralink has made progress toward its goal of using its N1 chip to intercept signals from the brain and then route them down the spinal cord so paralyzed people can walk again.

neural link; Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

“We have a lot of work to do to achieve this full vision, but I hope you can see how the pieces all fit together to achieve this,” said Joey O’Doherty, a researcher working on Neuralink’s motor control technology.

View images and type with your mind

Another experiment fed visual data captured by a camera into a monkey’s visual cortex, showing the monkey flashing virtually, interpreted as being in different locations. That’s technology that Neuralink hopes will lead to a visual prosthesis for the blind.

The first-generation Neuralink technology uses 1,024 electrodes, but Neuralink showed next-generation models with more than 16,000 electrodes. That much detail would dramatically improve the fidelity of the image a blind person could see, Adams said.

A monkey sipping a fruit smoothie reward tube looks at a computer screen with a virtual keyboard

A monkey named Sake uses his mind to control a cursor to type words using a virtual keyboard.

neural link; Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

“If you put a device on either side of your visual cortex, that would give you 32,000 points of light to create an image of someone who is blind,” Adams said.

Another application of Neuralink is to allow paralyzed people to use their implants to type thoughts.

“We are convinced that someone who doesn’t really have any other interface to the outside world can operate their phone better than someone who has working hands,” Musk said.

Neuralink is not alone

Neuralink is not alone in its foray into the field called brain-machine interface (BMI) or brain-computer interface (BCI) technology. Academic researchers have one steady stream of research papersand startups like BlackRock Neurotech, Sync and Paradromes are also active. Some, like nurouse non-invasive approaches that do not require surgery.

One thing that separates Neuralink from some of those efforts is the goal of mass production.

“Manufacturing is hard — I would say 100 to 1,000 times harder to go from a prototype to a device that is safe and reliable, works in a wide range of conditions, is affordable and mass-produced,” Musk said. “It’s insanely hard.”

Musk envisions Neuralink making millions of brain chips and said he expects to have one of his own. To achieve that goal, the company tries to automate as much technology as possible. The R1 robot inserts electrodes into the brain without damaging blood vessels, but a next-generation machine is designed to handle more of the surgeries, including cutting the skull.

Neuralink is also working to place its brain chips a layer farther from the brain, on the outside of a layer called the dura. That requires major changes to robotic needles and needle steering systems, upgrades the company is working on today.

“There aren’t that many neurosurgeons out there — maybe about 10 for a million people,” said Christine Odabashian, who leads Neuralink’s surgery engineering team. “To do the most right thing and have an affordable and accessible procedure, we need to figure out how a neurosurgeon can oversee multiple procedures at the same time.”

Musk’s sci-fi vision for Neuralink

Another major difference between Neuralink and its rivals is Musk’s sci-fi vision.

The company’s ambitions are grand: “A general purpose input-output device that can communicate with every aspect of your brain,” Musk said. But the long-term plan is much grander.

“What are we doing about AI, about artificial general intelligence?” asked Musk. “If we have digital superintelligence, much smarter than any human being, how can we mitigate that risk at the species level? Even in a benign scenario where the AI ​​is very benevolent, how do we compete? How do we compete?”

According to Musk – only conceptually for now, but perhaps eventually physically – the answer is Neuralink.

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